By Todd Allen
Cult of the Feedback Loop – Lean Startup VS Six Sigma VS Everything Else

If you’ve read any popular business or management books in the last 25 years, you’ve probably seen a chart that looks like a feedback loop.  A circular method for improving your product and incorporate testing data.  Sigma Six was huge in the 1990s and 2000s.  Lean Startup has its variation on the loop that’s in vogue right now.  How far does this go back?  Try 60 years.

The first major, iconic feedback loop was “PDCA” A.K.A “The Deming Wheel” A.K.A. “The Shewhert Cycle” A.K.A.  “Plan-Do-Check-Act” was popularized in Japan in 1950 and 1951 by the lectures of a Dr. W. Edwards Deming.  The short version is to plan out your project, try it, examine the results and then incorporate any changes you need to make based on the results.  That part about incorporating change?  A lot of people in Silicon Valley would call that “pivoting.”  Here’s what a chart of that looks like:

Next comes Six Sigma.  Six Sigma really dates back to 1986 and Motorola.  In the mid-90s, General Electric touted using it as the stock prices surged and it became a full-on management fad.  The major component of the Six Sigma method was “DMAIC,” which essentially puts “Improve” (again, “pivot,” if you’re up on your Valley fads) in between check and act from PDCA.  Here’s what that chart looks like:

And then you have the SOSTAC® Planning System.  This one originates from the marketing world and moved over to the web.  It was part of curriculum at Columbia College Chicago when I was teaching eBusiness.  Yes.  It’s a registered trademark going back to the 1990s. The chart for this one is going to look awfully familiar:

This is a variation on the previous two charts with a little more emphasis on thinking about what you’re doing.
Finally, you’ve got the current hot topic, The Lean Startup, which features “Build-Measure-Learn.”  While B-M-L is filtered through the lens of agile development, what does that chart look like?
The Lean chart is a little more focused on the learning aspects of this feedback loop than the others, but guess what?  They’re all talking about the same thing: you want to test your product, get some feedback and make any changes you need to make.
Six Sigma was famously rigid in it’s structure and thought by many to stifle creativity with its hierarchy. It also supports a minor industry training workers in its ways and certifying them with titles like “Green Belt” and “Master Black Belt.”  SOSTAC®… well, it’s trademarked, what more can I say?
There seems to be a need, particularly in larger organizations, to turn the act of examining product feedback into a rigid set of rules where one set of actions applies to all situations.  “Best management practices” is the term for this what will show up on your buzzword bingo card.  Still, one size doesn’t really fit all.
Look at all the efforts to codify this feedback loop over the years.  Rather than committing one particular chart to memory and adhering to it with religious fervor, think about the message of fixing a product that you may not realize is broken until you do some user testing.  Figure out how that’s best accomplished in the environment you work in and adapt.
If you don’t want to adapt, wait five years and odds are pretty good somebody else is going to publish another variation on everything listed above.